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Life, And More Life: An Introduction to African Women’s Theology

What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough. –Eugene Delacroix

When Eugene Delacroix penned these words, he may have been thinking of the kind of genius that would move an African woman to inform the traditional (white, European, male) theological community that what they have said over centuries of theologizing is still not nearly enough. For Mercy Amba Oduyoye, affectionately known as the mother of African women’s theology, it is not enough because it has never included the voice, heart and perspective of African women. In Introducing African Women’s Theology, Oduyoye synthesizes twenty years of theological reflection by The Circle of Concerned African Women, an organization Oduyoye founded for the purpose of researching and publishing theological literature by African women. The book, published in 2001 by Sheffield Academic Press, deftly interweaves cultural hermeneutics and biblical hermeneutics in a woman-centered key, all with the hope of creating a liberative theology that is relevant to the challenges of contemporary Africa. To this end, the book focuses on the following themes:

  • women’s words about God—theology, narrowly defined
  • Jesus, the divine-human—Christological perspectives
  • on being human—a Christian anthropology
  • the household of God—studies in ecclesiology
  • hospitality and spirituality—living the faith
  • resurrection of the body—an eschatology1

This essay will review Oduyoye’s exploration of African women’s Christology and ecclesiology.2 The backdrop for all considerations of African women’s theologies must be the traumatic effect of hundreds of years of soul-crushing cultural and religious colonialism that have robbed the continent of self-respect, hope and human dignity. The African woman cannot do theology outside of an awareness of extreme poverty and the incomprehensible shame of exploitation, including the imperialistic nature of “mission theology,” the religious colonization that has dominated Christianity in Africa for decades. As a result of mission theology, “In Africa the central task for ecclesiology is how to construct a church that is truly African and truly Christian.”3 Oduyoye states that women have had to work to create “…a theology crafted to cope with the European endeavor to Christianize Africa in the context of slavery and colonization.”4 Because this is a lived experience, in their reading of the Bible, African women are uncannily conscious of colonial influences between nations and between individuals. They read with a set of questions indelibly printed in their minds: Who is the ruler, who is being ruled, and how does it happen? African women do not have the luxury of ignoring the imperialistic tendencies of Christianity itself; they are highly aware of who is proclaiming that their truth is the only truth. In response to this destructive history, African women’s theology “…does not stop at theory but moves to commitment, advocacy and a transforming praxis…”5 Necessarily, the issue of survival is of utmost, daily importance, which impacts the nature of theological perspective and discussion. Metaphysical analysis of the Bible takes a back seat to questions about how the Scriptures are used to justify polygamy, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and other tragedies of the African woman’s existence. Unlike Western Protestant ecclesiology, which is marked by a high degree of individualism (with its emphasis on individual sin and personal salvation), African women’s ecclesiology is primarily a communal one, grounded on the belief that “I am, because we are.”6 In this ethic, even the dependent—the sick, the aged, children and disabled–are valued, and sin and salvation are viewed in a more collective manner. Equal worth and joint responsibility are meant to be enjoyed by all of humanity. Accordingly, “They are convinced that the call and the task of the church are to identify the existing suffering and name it.”7 If an individual suffers in an African woman’s community, the whole community suffers on her/his behalf. Because of the culture’s emphasis on community, “Justice and participation are key words in koinonia, the women’s paradigm for ecclesiology.”8 In other words, an African woman’s church community does not thrive outside of justice and participation by and for every member. Perhaps the most essential marker of African women’s theology is their belief that “Life is our most valuable asset…”9 Therefore, there is a high emphasis on kinship and hospitality to the ‘other’ in the interest of honoring and perpetuating life. They are aware of the high cost of hospitality for people who are poor, and this makes African women theologians more committed to the church of their experience than to that of the church of the New Testament.10 What this means in practical terms is that they are more compelled by a neighbor dying of AIDS than they are by an intellectual examination of the church in the fourth century. Partly out of necessity, but partially because it is more honoring to life, “Religion is a means to the end of fullness, and women’s struggles include following religious practices in order to preserve life or to ensure its continuation.”11 This very practical theology marks African women’s view of Christology as well. While many Westerners will find Christological meaning in the incarnation or annunciation, African women invariably resonate with the story of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth and their announcements of “uncommon conception,”12 for childbearing is of central importance in the lives of African women. It is through childbearing that African women will have a place and worth in their family and society, and often times their very survival depends upon their ability to reproduce. So, “Their Christology, like the testimonies of Elizabeth and Mary, are anchored on real life experiences.”13 In this one example, we see the necessity and call of contextualized Christology; who Christ is for any person is based largely on where they are standing. Because horrendous suffering is a constant in the continent of Africa, it is a factor that impacts the African woman’s understanding of Christ. She identifies with Christ’s suffering, rejection and death, and she understands this sacrifice to be salvific. However, because this ideology has been abused, there are limits to this sacrifice. African women “…insist it must be voluntary and it must be the duty of both men and women.”14 Further, “…all suffering has to be like birth pangs: it has to lead to a birth.”15 It is in this way that African women hold in balance the suffering Christ and the victorious Christ. Christ did not come merely to suffer but to conquer sin and suffering. African women gather around four Christological models that arise from their experience of Christ and life. In the eschatological model, they focus on Christ’s resurrection, “the ultimate victory over this world’s alienating forces.” The anthropological model points to Christ’s love of neighbor and nurturing of life. In the liberational model, the focal point is on Christ as liberator from suffering, and in the cosmological model, they identify with the Christ who is concerned with the restoration of all of the cosmos. With these central identifying factors, African women have created a Christology that responds to the whole of life, a critical value in their theology.16 As we can see, African women’s Christology is not a reserved, intellectual affair; rather, it is a relational communion in which African women take courage and hope from the events of Christ’s life that mirror their own. While missionaries introduced a Christ who seemed to them like “an exacting judge,”17African women resonate with the Christ who brings women’s children back to life. They worship the Christ who advocated for the poor and disenfranchised, who recognized women’s plight and took them into account. Oduyoye proposes that “…the meaning of ‘Jesus saves’ should not be a meta-physical analysis of what it means to be truly God and truly human but rather…the meaning of the Christ-event in view of the challenges of racism, sexism and other contexts…in which we profess Christ.”18 In this essay, we have recognized that African women’s interpretations of the Biblical text have been shaped by their continent’s struggle to stand beneath the weight of wars, disease, poverty and colonization. According to Mercy Amba Oduyoye, because of their unique sufferings, African women have a cultural value of “life and more life,” a value which ultimately inscribes itself upon the women theologians’ understanding of ecclesiology and Christology. Their very heartfelt, practical, and liberationist theology reveals the gaps in “traditional,” Western theology, which has rarely, if ever, invited us to see the black, feminine face of God. In Oduyoye’s contemplations we catch a glimpse of that face, and the beauty reminds us of the Person behind theology who is, and always has been, more than enough for us all.

Endnotes 1Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Introducing African Women’s Theology (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 2001).

2Oduyoye is careful to point out that her reflections cannot be extrapolated as universally valid for all African women; rather, her views represent only the theology derived from The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians.

3Laurenti Magesa, “Ecclesiologies,” in Dictionary of Third World Theologies, ed. Virginia Fabella and R.S. Sugirtharajah (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000), 72.

4Oduyoye, 22.

5Ibid, p. 16.

6Ibid, p. 26.

7Ibid, p. 83.

8Ibid, p. 32.

9Ibid, p. 93.

10Ibid, p. 80.

11Ibid, p. 35.

12Luke 1:39-45

13Oduyoye, 58.

14Ibid., p. 55.

15Ibid., p. 57.

16Ibid., p. 61-62.

17Ibid., p. 56.

18Ibid, p. 59.

Bibliography

Fabella, Virginia, and R.S. Sugirtharajah, eds. Dictionary of Third World Theologies. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2000.

Oduyoye, Mercy.Introducing African Women’s Theology. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

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Author:
Susan Hall :
Susan Hall, M.A., is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor in the state of Washington and has worked in social service and counseling settings since 1991. She is currently at work on her doctor of ministry in international feminist theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary. Look for Susan’s Bible study series for women, to be released next year.

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